Leigh was standing at the back of his parish church during services one evening in the early 1960s when a priest, Father Anthony White, came up behind him and began asking questions about other boys in Leigh’s class.
‘He was obviously intoxicated’, Leigh said. ‘He was slurring his speech and I could smell alcohol on his breath.’ When the then 10-year-old said he hadn’t seen any of the boys, White said, ‘You’ll do’, took him by the arm and forcibly walked him out of the church.
Leigh’s exit was seen by other parishioners in the crowded church. White kept mumbling boys’ names, saying ‘Peter does it for me. David does it for me’, as he went through a succession of names of boys in Leigh’s class.
‘He didn’t specify what it was’, Leigh said. ‘He walked me into the presbytery and I remember it was all dark and then into presumably his bedroom and then he told me to take my clothes off.’
Leigh told the Commissioner he ‘bolted’ and ran back to the church where he told some assembled parishioners what had happened. They told him to ‘shut up’. He spent the remainder of the church service in shock and didn’t tell his parents what had happened to him. Nor did he go to the boys whose names White had mentioned to ask whether they’d had similar experiences to his own with White. This remained a source of regret as he suspected they’d encountered much worse treatment by White. ‘One of those boys that he’d named was the dux of the school, was incredibly bright – a brilliant mind we thought, like extraordinary memory and capability, but he never went past Grade 10.’
In class, Leigh saw a lot of sexualised behaviour exhibited by boys with each other as well as a lot of touching by Christian Brothers. He wasn’t sure if it was associated with abuse and he didn’t recall any change in his own behaviour. When he saw White after that evening there was no recognition of what had happened. ‘He may not have even remembered it’, Leigh said. ‘He was very intoxicated.’
Later, another more positive experience with a young priest led Leigh to enter a seminary where he stayed for several years before deciding celibacy wasn’t for him. In the seminary, there seemed to be tacit acceptance of homosexuality but sexuality was never discussed in any of their preparations for the priesthood.
When he left the seminary, Leigh married and found work in community services. As an adult, he lamented that the Catholic Church had known about White’s alcoholism, if not his offending.
‘What really concerns me is the inaction of the Church to address, to leave a priest in that position of power and authority and functioning as a priest and being able to access adolescents. To me there’s a culpability there for an organisation, for the Church like any organisation … [If a priest] can’t do their job because they’re not actually able to behave, [then] either manage their alcoholism and if they can’t do that then they shouldn’t be in this sort of role, performing these sorts of duties and in a position of trust and power.’
It had taken Leigh nearly 50 years to disclose what had happened to him. He told his mother who believed him and then a few years later he told a counsellor. He couldn’t remember if he’d told his ex-wife. Through his work he became aware of other survivors of child sexual abuse who have never talked about their experience and probably never will.
‘It’s this greater population who will never present to the Commission’, he said. ‘[They] will never say anything, but will continue to be affected in their own ways by those experiences. One of the challenges is what kind of message can go out to that larger population who experienced things that shouldn’t have happened to them …
‘Maybe someday in the future they might want to talk about it to somebody. So it’s a message about that kind of encouragement. “Think about talking to someone you trust one day. Who might those people be?” How can we bridge that population - that what happened to them is wrong and it shouldn’t have happened, so that there’s some validation of them as people. Because as children we tend to blame ourselves and then can carry that through into adulthood. That’s what my overriding concern is. I feel privileged; I’m lucky to be able to be doing some growing and healing myself, but I think there’s a much larger population.’